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Case Analysis 18 September, 2013

The Chemical Deal: The Way Out Obama Needs

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The Unit for Political Studies

The Unit for Political Studies is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs. An integral and vital part of the ACRPS’ activities, it offers academically rigorous analysis on issues that are relevant and useful to the public, academics and policy-makers of the Arab region and beyond. The Unit for Policy Studies draws on the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars based within and outside the ACRPS. It produces three of the Center’s publication series: Situation Assessment, Policy Analysis, and Case Analysis reports. 


After the massacre caused by the chemical bombardment in the Eastern and Western Ghouta areas of Damascus on August 21, 2013, Syria's predicament entered a new phase. On September 1, US President Barack Obama announced his decision to take military action against the Syrian regime, provided that Congress gave its approval. Despite broad opposition from the US public, and members of Congress, the possibility of military action remained likely. This possibility lessened once Russia announced an initiative-welcomed by the Syrian regime-to place the Syrian chemical arsenal under international control, and subsequently decommission and destroy it.

This paper reviews the manner in which the Obama administration handled the use of chemical weapons and the way this contributed to the formulation of the Russian initiative. It also considers possible directions for Syria in light of recent developments, particularly the potential for a decline in international efforts to solve the crisis, linking the chemical disarmament to a shift in focus from punishing the regime for deploying these weapons to being satisfied  with their being handed over.

The Evolution of the US Position toward the Syrian Crisis

Following the wide-scale use of chemical weapons, the Obama administration began to prepare for a punitive strike against the Syrian regime. This represented a major change in US strategy toward Syria, which had until then displayed varying degrees of indifference. The US's strategy from the beginning of the Syrian Revolution until the chemical attacks on August 21 can be summarized as follows:

  • The US shied away from direct involvement, and was content to apply diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions against the regime. This conforms to the general parameters of the Obama administration's strategy on foreign affairs.
  • The US did not see the crisis in Syria as a threat to US national security and its vital interests in the region, as long as it, along with its regional allies, was able to keep the conflict contained within the geographical borders of Syria.[1]
  • The US characterized the conflict in Syria as a potentially protracted "civil war," which prompted the US to avoid becoming directly involved, especially since the Syrian opposition, in the US's opinion, is divided and disparate, and includes "extremist forces." Consequently, it is by no means certain that the current Syrian opposition would become a strategic ally of the US should it win the conflict and overthrow the regime.[2]
  • The US refused to arm the Syrian opposition.

On the basis of the above, the Obama administration favored gradual alignment in coordination with Russia to find a political solution in line with the Geneva Accord as an alternative to other options, such as arming the Syrian opposition or some form of direct military involvement. To ensure progress on this path, Obama warned the Syrian regime early on about the use of chemical weapons, which he considered an uncrossable "red line" and a total "game changer" should the regime resort to them.

The Syrian regime's wide-scale use of chemical weapons in the two Ghoutas put Obama and his administration in an embarrassing position, prompting him to fulfil his commitment to deal with the regime's crossing his set red line described as the necessary condition for him to change his approach to the Syrian crisis. In light of this, Obama announced his decision to launch a rapid and immediate strike against the regime in the form of punitive and limited military action. The aims of this military action can be summarized as follows:

  • To punish the Syrian regime for crossing the line and to extricate Obama from an embarrassing position, allowing him to appear a resolute president after the growing domestic criticism directed at his weakness and hesitation.
  • To destroy the Syrian regime's chemical capabilities and prevent their deployment against US allies, namely Israel. In this fashion, the US would achieve an Israeli security priority.
  • To send a warning to some regional and global states-those the US describes as "rogue states," such as Iran and North Korea-that if they attempt to acquire or develop weapons of mass destruction, and use them, they will face a firm, punitive response. This also preserves the US "image" and status as a superpower by controlling the outcomes of international politics and performing an important role in it.

It is noteworthy that in his political discourse over this period Obama has made no reference to the aims of the Syrian Revolution, nor to the plight of Syrian people. Similarly, though unlike his predecessor George Bush, he has not addressed the spread of democracy, the fight against terrorism, or autocracy. Indeed his discourse has been restricted to matters of regional and international relations in terms of the damage the US and its allies might suffer. It is also important to note that the supporters of the Syrian regime are also those who opposed the adoption of George Bush's discourse concerning the fight against Islamic terrorism and obscurantism.

In light of these aims, the Obama administration was keen to reassure domestic and international audiences, the allies of the Syrian regime in particular, that the expected strike would be limited, not intended to bring down the regime or change the balance of forces on the ground. It is against this background that one should understand US diplomat Jeffrey Feltman's visit to Tehran on August 26, 2012, in his capacity as UN under-secretary-general for political affairs, when he endeavored to contain the Iranian response, and encouraged it not to escalate the situation should the military strike take place.

US Mobilization for Military Action

In the days prior to Congress's return from its summer recess, the Obama administration began intensive diplomatic efforts to forge a broad international coalition to take part in the military action, or at least support it. The mini "coalition of the willing" comprised of the UK and France alongside the US was no longer viable after London's withdrawal, following a vote in the House of Commons rejecting participation in military action against al-Assad's regime. At the G20 summit, Obama actually succeeded in overcoming strong opposition to his plan from Russia, China, and the other emerging powers allied with them (Brazil, India, and Indonesia). On the sidelines of the summit, 12 states issued a statement on September 6 that talked of the necessity of a strong response to deter the Syrian regime from using chemical weapons. Similarly, the participation of US Secretary of State John Kerry at the EU foreign ministers' meeting in Lithuania on September 7 was a success-a concluding statement that called for a strong deterrent response against the Syrian regime. Although Kerry failed to add the EU to the list of participants in military action, he did succeed in getting Germany, Italy, and a number of other EU states to drop their demand for Security Council agreement prior to military action against the Syrian regime. Ultimately, US diplomacy led to the agreement of 33 states to participate in the imminent strike against the regime.

Public opinion in the West demands close attention, as the public was openly skeptical over the limited extent of military action and doubtful about governmental intentions. These attitudes are a result of the US aggression against Iraq having been justified on false pretexts. It is clear that public opinion on this subject is not split into left and right or liberal and conservative. We find some members of the extreme right opposing military action alongside the peace movement, either out of zeal for Israeli interests or from hostility to terrorism. The Russian regime's propaganda succeeded in affirming its anti-Islamic stance, and the propaganda of the Syrian regime succeeded in undermining the positions of political powers disgusted by the oppressive methods of the Syrian regime but who have little sympathy for any alternative; the Syrian opposition's propaganda, however, failed to place the suffering of the Syrian people at the forefront, to condemn the crimes of the extremist forces in Syria, and to counter the image of the Revolution being projected by the regime. Supporters of the strike against Syria come from across the political spectrum-liberal, left-wing and right-wing-and have a range of motivations and grounds for their support.

A "Deal" During the Timeout

In parallel with preparations for the strike, diplomatic efforts were in place to avoid the military option. By virtue of its sizeable interests in Syria and its role in the conflict, Iran, a major player in the crisis, was not in a position to allow a blow against its ally. At the same time, the new Iranian leadership was unwilling to embark on an early confrontation that would bring its chances of rapprochement with the West, and the US in particular, to an end. It seems that Iran accepted the strike and began preparations to absorb its ramifications and maintain the existing status quo in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon. In cooperation with its regional allies, Iran proposed ways for the Syrian regime to avoid the strike. This resulted in the Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki's eight-point initiative on September 4 that called for an immediate cessation of fighting in order to await the results of the investigation into the use of chemical weapons by the international team of observers; compel the regime and opposition to accept a date to being negotiations; and form an interim government that able to hold elections under Arab and UN supervision followed by the peaceful rotation of power.[3]

The Maliki plan did not resonate internationally, where the focus was solely on punishing the regime for using chemical weapons. Behind the scenes at the G20 summit, expectations were high for last minute negotiations. Diplomatic efforts led by a number of states-with Germany at the fore-resulted in a brief meeting alongside the summit between Obama and Putin.[4] It seems that the Russian leadership was convinced of US resolve to carry out its threat, and that avoiding the strike required significant "concessions" regarding chemical weapons, either as a face-saver for Obama or as a means to weaken his position before Congress and the public opposed military action via an initiative that would remove what was deemed the direct "justification" for striking militarily-the possession and possibility of using chemical weapons.[5]

It became clear that Russia, backed by Germany, had initiated contacts with European countries and Iran, and were preparing to strike a deal before Congress's return and, hence, before Obama's address to the nation the following day. This is exactly what happened. A few hours before the Congressional debate on military action, Russia announced its initiative to put Syrian chemical arsenal under international control, subsequently destroying them following Syria's signing the Convention of the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Immediately, in Moscow, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem announced "the Syrian leadership's welcome for the Russian proposal so as to ensure the security of Syria and its citizens."

The Russian initiative achieved the US administration's goal of a "punitive strike," and, as a result, strengthened the position of those within the US government who had reservations about the strike in the first place. It has also undermined the cohesiveness of US supporters for military action, especially a pro-Israel lobby very keen to destroy the Syrian chemical arsenal, which it sees as a key aim for the security of Israel at a time when the preferred option is to keep the regime weak, particularly since the alternative is chaos, or worse, for Israel. Incidentally, this position is shared by other countries, such as Jordan.

New Calculations and the Possibilities for a Resolution

The "chemical deal" has shuffled the cards at every level of the Syrian crisis. The US military strike became less likely after having seemed certain, which was crystal clear in President Obama's address to the nation on September 10. While Obama kept military action as an available option, and called upon the American people and members of Congress to empower him to undertake it, he stated that the diplomatic option had priority, and for that reason requested that the Congressional vote be delayed. On this basis, developments with respect to the international drive on Syria fall within the prospects of three possible scenarios:

A Resolution Limited to Addressing Chemical Weapons

Obama will be able to sell the Russian initiative to the US public and Congress as a personal "triumph" for his administration, particularly given the accusations of weakness and hesitancy directed against him. His resort to force and the threat of military intervention proved effective, forcing Russia and the Syrian regime to take a step backwards. This step may create the "way out" Obama is calling for to avoid military action that will place him and his party in confrontation with public opinion. Military action also conflicts with the hands-off strategy he followed since his election campaign. With this as a starting point, the Russians may propose accelerated implementation of the "deal," which will return the Syrian crisis to the phase prior to the chemical massacre. The conflict will then continue until internal and external conditions become suitable for reaching a "resolution." The US focus on the question of chemical weapons, and its complete disregard for other aspects of the Syrian tragedy for more than two years, make this the "odds on" choice. In practice, this choice was translated into the agreement reached between Kerry and Lavrov in Geneva on September 14 that stipulates the endpoint for the destruction of the Syrian chemical arsenal as mid-2014.

A Comprehensive Resolution

The use of chemical weapons-an issue exploited in the bargaining between the West and Russia over Syria-may open the door to wider arrangements. The complexities of the conflict inside Syria may prevent the "deal" from being restricted to the matter of chemical weapons alone. In addition, the US administration is being pressured by some Arab, regional, and European states (France, for example) that are keen to punish the Syrian regime, which favors moves that do not restrict the deal to chemical weapons. This may create an opportunity to push for a political solution on the basis of Geneva I and the formation of an interim government with full powers made up of members from the regime and the opposition as a first step on the road to political transition in Syria. There are, however, a number of difficulties to this approach. Most importantly, neither side of the conflict, the regime in particular, is prepared to enter a political process. The regime agreed to the "deal" as the price to be paid for it to retain its previous position in the internal conflict equation and for its rehabilitation as a "legitimate" party with international recognition. Hence, it should not be expected to enter a political process when it feels weak or under threat as is the situation currently. It should be borne in mind how the regime and its allies have, since April 2013, tried to upset the military balance on the ground to avoid attending the Geneva II conference from a position of weakness.

The Deal Fails

Conflicts of interest for international and regional powers, and the fluctuating balance of profit and loss involved, may contribute to the failure of the deal, or at least make it difficult to implement within the envisaged timeframe. This would restore the international picture to the point prior to the Russian initiative, and mean that the US administration would continue with its efforts to obtain Congressional authorization for the use of force by mobilizing and putting to work the main pressure groups enthusiastic for military action and by stressing the national interest and US credibility and prestige. What weakens this possibility, however, is the difficulty in predicting the result of a vote in Congress, given its divisions and variety of opinions in addition to the public's wide opposition. That Obama should launch a military strike against the Syrian regime against the will of Congress is to be ruled out.

All of the above makes the Russian initiative represent the minimal way out sought by the major powers concerned with the conflict after the significant escalation that followed the Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons against its people. Interestingly, both allies and opponents of the regime have cooperated closely to reach an agreement that forestalls a US military strike. Does this cooperation represent a model that could be repeated in the context of reaching an overall resolution to end the Syrian tragedy, and help bring an end to a regime that has destroyed Syrian cities and inflicted genocide and crimes against humanity on its people? Or will conflict management and containment continue as the means to deal with the issue? Evidently, the Syrian people will not only have to continue to be self-reliant, but also raise their level of internal solidarity and their political and fighting forces' performances.

*This Assessment was translated by the ACRPS Translation and English Editing Department. The original Arabic version published on December 4th, 2013 can be found here.


 


[1] In his testimony before Congress on August 19, 2013, chairman of the joint chiefs-of-staff Martin Dempsey stated, "Action on the Syrian issue should happen solely to protect the interests of our allies [Turkey, Jordan, and Israel]." See "General Says Syrian Rebels Aren't Ready to Take Power," New York Times, August 21, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/22/world/middleeast/general-says-syrian-rebels-arent-ready-to-take-power.html?_r=0.

[2] Ibid.

[3] "Al-Maliki proposes initiative to resolve Syrian crisis: Ceasefire, dialogue, and rejection of any military action," Al-Hayat, September 5, 2013, http://alhayat.com/Details/548508.

[4] Germany played a role in reducing tensions between Presidents Obama and Putin after the White House cancelled the previously arranged bilateral meeting alongside the G20 summit as a result of Putin, a few days before the summit, having accused the US administration of lying about the chemical weapons issue.

[5] During the press conference held by US Secretary of State John Kerry in London on September 9, a journalist asked him whether it was possible to avoid military action if Syria gave up its chemical weapons. Kerry replied in the affirmative, provided that this happened within one week.